The Dogs of Riga, by Henning Mankell

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I came to the corporate world from teaching where even the most cynical and disillusioned co-worker started from a place of caring about the children. When I started working in the corporate world, however, I quickly realised that there were two sorts of people there: those who cared only about getting ahead and those who cared about the work itself. Inspector Kurt Wallander is one of the latter.

Here, Wallander investigates the case of two dead men washed ashore in a life raft. Apparently in their mid-30s, dressed in expensive clothes with their arms wrapped around each other, both men have been shot through the heart. The previous day, one of Wallander’s younger colleagues had taken an anonymous call that a raft with two dead bodies would be washing ashore. At the time, Wallander decided to alert the coast guards and then wait and see what happened.

Wallander is not averse to waiting. He can act and does, but he takes a measured and intelligent approach to his job. Unfortunately for him, the ramifications of the case take him out of his comfort zone, out of his city and even out of his country. He must take action in an atmosphere of uncertainty, guesswork, and peril for both himself and others.

Once it is determined that the two men probably came from Latvia, Wallander is relieved to turn over the investigation to his Latvian counterpart, Major Liepa, whom he recognises as a policeman after his own heart. When the two talk late into the night over a bottle of whiskey, Liepa explains that he is a man of faith, though he does not belong to a religion. He cares about “the fight for survival”, which to him includes “the fight for freedom and independence.”

Another murder drags Wallander back into the case and sends him to Latvia, where he has to negotiate places, people and power structures that are foreign to him.

This is the third book in the Wallander series, first published in Sweden in 1992. The date is significant because, as Mankell describes in his Afterword, “Just a few months after this book was finished, in the spring of 1991, the coup took place in the Soviet Union—the key incident that accelerated declarations of independence in the Baltic countries.”

While the story is intricately plotted, with many unexpected twists and turns, the real joy of the book for me is Wallander as a character. We see much of his life outside of work: oppressed by the intense cold, navigating a difficult relationship with his elderly father, thinking of his daughter Linda who is away at college, and often missing his friend and mentor Rydberg who has died of cancer only a month previously.

Such scenes, which seem irrelevant to the puzzle of the two men in the life raft, help us with the puzzle that is Wallander himself. And each scene echoes through the story, adding context and color to Wallander’s thoughts and choices and actions.

I love the realism of this portrayal. Wallander gets discouraged; he needs to stop and rest sometimes or eat or use the washroom. He questions himself, at one point describing himself as “a Swedish police officer in early middle age, one who has completely lost his sense of judgment and gone out of his mind.”

But he goes on. Offered opportunities to leave and return to his safe desk in Ystad, Wallander is tempted but plows ahead, driven by the core of integrity that I most appreciate in those around me and in the protagonists with whom I choose to spend my time. These are my heroes, whether sitting at a desk near me or in the pages of a book: however flawed, they labor for something larger than themselves.

Who are some memorable characters from novels you’ve read?

Daniel Deronda, by George Eliot

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George Eliot’s last novel is an ambitious undertaking. We follow two people starting with the moment they first saw each other, in 1865 at a resort in Leubronn, a fictional town in Germany. As young Gwendolyn Harleth plays roulette, she is observed by Daniel Deronda. She perceives that while he is taken by her great beauty, he seems to be critical of her behavior. Spoiled and stubborn, she refuses to stop until she has gambled away the last bit of her winnings, trying to appear uncaring. The next day she is called home by a letter from her mother that they have lost all their money, but not before the necklace she has pawned after her losses is mysteriously returned to her.

From there we go back to learn how the self-centered Gwendolyn and the quiet Deronda reached this moment. Gwendolyn has had everything her own way up to this point, ruling over her social circle despite her lack of wealth, uncaring about others, and demanding to be entertained constantly. Just before her trip to Leubronn with family friends, she has refused an offer from Henleigh Grandcourt, a man whose wealth and position would seem to promise all her dreams would come true. However, she has learned that he has a family already, with his longtime mistress.

Deronda is the ward of Sir Humphrey Mallinger, Grandcourt’s uncle. Like most people, he believes he must be Sir Humphrey’s illegitimate son. A most generous and compassionate man, he misses a scholarship to Cambridge through helping his friend Hans Meyrick to win one. He also rescues Mirah, a young Jewish girl who was about to drown herself, and takes her to the Meyrick family for safekeeping. Through her he meets a mysterious Jewish visionary named Mordecai and becomes interested in learning more about the Jewish faith. This novel is the first to treats Jews sympathetically.

From there the two stories continue in tandem, only occasionally intersecting. While there is a great deal of narrative, common in novels of the period, the tale is enlivened by Eliot’s light touch with dialogue and by her penetrating, and sometimes satiric, insight. For instance, she says “it was evident that Gwendolyn was not a general favourite with her own sex; there were not beginnings of intimacy between her and other girls, and in conversation they rather noticed what she said than spoke to her in free exchange.”

I love what Mrs. Meyrick says of her son: “‘If I were to live till my Hans got old, I should still see the boy in him. A mother’s love, I often say, is like a tree that has got all the wood in it, from the very first it made.’”

Deronda’s story of growing interest in Judaism and what we would now call Zionism is less interesting. In his introduction to my copy, F.R. Leavis disagrees with Henry James that Eliot’s intellectual ability is the cause; Leavis admires her intelligence and intellectual powers. Rather, he blames the failure of this part of the book on Eliot’s persistence in endowing her protagonists with idealism. He calls this “immaturity” on Eliot’s part, and even describes Deronda as being a woman in his desire to make the world a better place.

I disagree. As Donald Maass points out, “Generally speaking, we choose company that is pleasant.” He goes on to ask writers “What kind of person are you asking your readers to spend four-hundred or so pages with?” In another post he suggests that “Positive emotions are harder to access and more difficult to use. Perhaps that’s because they relieve conflict rather than feeding it.” Yet we as readers treasure our encounters with these emotions. “‘Higher emotions’ are called that for a reason. They elevate and inspire us. Even just reading about them changes us, as Thomas Jefferson once wrote and which more recently has been scientifically demonstrated in studies of ‘moral elevation’ by Dr. Jonathan Haidt and others.”

The trick is to make the character interesting by adding internal conflicts and shadings. He or she cannot be all positive. Plus the character has to change. While Deronda has some internal conflicts over who his parents are and whether the woman he loves will also love him, these do not fundamentally change him and he never does or is tempted to do anything wrong. The only way he changes in the book is through his decision to immerse himself in Judaism. He is still his perfect self at the end. Mordecai too is entirely perfect and does not change.

The other reason why the Jewish part of the story drags is that so much of it is presented in long intellectual monologues by Mordecai, unbroken by action or emotion. Today we call this “info-dumping” and try to avoid it.

I don’t think the problem here is idealism, so much as it is the lack of shading in our idealistic characters and the misuse of dialogue to convey chunks of information. Still, there is much to admire in this book. I found myself, despite having read it before, hurrying to get to the end to find out what would happen to these two characters.

Have you read any of George Eliot’s novels? What did you think of them?

Open: An Autobiography, by Andre Agassi

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I always start my memoir classes by discussing what a memoir is. It covers a discreet portion of the author’s life, usually with a limited time frame, and is the author’s perception of the incidents described. Autobiography, on the other hand, is expected to be more objective and to cover the author’s entire life. Therefore, we might question this “autobiography” of someone who is only 39 the year it is published.

Yet Agassi is justified in calling this an autobiography. The frame of the book is his last match as a professional tennis player, at the U.S. Open. From there we go back to his childhood and follow him up to that moment in 2006, that last match. Since almost every moment of his life has been devoted to professional tennis, I think it’s fair to say that one life ended that day and another began. Also, the reworking of Agassi’s original material by another writer, the extensive fact-checking and multiple editorial rewrites provide some objectivity to what is a very personal account.

I love watching tennis, the intense one-on-one battles where the advantage shifts back and forth. The psychological battle interests me almost more than the physical one. A person has to stand out there alone under the unrelenting eyes of cameras and spectators, without teammates or coaches or even privacy to collect themselves. They have to summon the courage to keep playing when they are losing horribly, embarrassingly, and the composure to stay calm in the run-up to an unexpected win.

Reading this book just after Wimbledon gave me added insight into what is happening on the tennis court. Agassi speaks of the “magnetic force” that comes near the end of a match that can pull you over “the finish line” into the win and the equal force pushing you away.

More than that, he gives a close description of the shaping of a professional tennis player, something that starts in early childhood. Agassi’s father gave him a racket when he was three but even before that, according to his mother, “when I was still in the crib, my father hung a mobile of tennis balls above my head and encouraged me to slap at them with a ping-pong paddle he’d taped to my hand.” No wonder he grows up hating tennis and rebelling whenever he gets a chance. Given his seemingly adult-style career, I had to keep reminding myself as he described some of his shenanigans of how young he was.

In some ways, it’s an all-too-familiar story of a childhood stunted and deformed by a stage- or sport-parent who demands that the child’s every moment be devoted to practice. Yet Agassi’s unusual openness about his experiences, his emotions, his misjudgments and mistakes lift this book above the ordinary. The tone is well-calculated to avoid self-pity and show respect and even love for those who might be said to have harmed him.

It’s a compelling read. I was surprised by how well-written it is until I got to the acknowledgments at the end. Agassi credits J.R. Moehringer with transforming their taped interviews into this book, along with input from editors and first readers. He explains that though Moehringer refused to have his own name printed on the cover, Agassi wanted to ensure he got credit for his work. With that, I was no longer surprised. Moehringer is an amazing writer. I’ve written about his extraordinary memoir The Tender Bar.

I treasure the brief outline of Agassi’s second life at the end of the book, a life born of his desire to help disadvantaged children. If we are lucky, we find work that gives our lives meaning.

What sports biographies or autobiographies have you found illuminating?

The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins

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I didn’t want to read this 2012 runaway bestseller simply because of the title. I have had it with grown women being referred to as girls. No one would refer to a 32-year-old man as a boy. The misogyny makes me want to spit.

However, a book discussion group I’m in selected it, so I gave in. In short, it was a fast read about a bunch of extremely unpleasant people. The voice of the initial first-person narrator, Rachel, felt genuine and well-written. The voices of the other two women narrating the story equally well-written, aside from not seeming different from Rachel’s. There was plenty of suspense from one page to the next, though the solution seemed clear early on, but little else to recommend it. However, as writers, we can always learn something from a book.

Rachel rides the commuter train back and forth to a job she pretends she hasn’t been fired from. Morning and evening, she gazes at her former home where Tom now lives with Anna, the woman he left Rachel for, and their baby. She also speculates about the loving couple a few doors down, making up names and stories for them. She also drinks. A lot.

Her excessive drinking has cost her not only her job and marriage, but made her fat and ugly, at least according to her account of what people say to her. More misogyny, anyone?

From the train, she witnesses a disturbing incident at the neighboring couple’s home, and soon after learns that the woman, whose real name is Megan, has disappeared. In between binges, blackouts and drunken, begging calls to Tom, Rachel decides to help with the investigation. In different chapters and a separate timeline, Megan tells us about events prior to her disappearance, lounging at home months after her gallery closed, feeling sorry for herself. Our third narrator is Anna, smug and arrogant in her marriage, while complaining about Rachel constantly barging in and the incessant trains passing behind the house. She misses the excitement of being a mistress rather than a wife; she misses clubbing and nights out.

What these three thoroughly unpleasant women have in common is that they are bored women living privileged lives yet finding endless complaints to fuel their self-pity. Rachel could set aside her multiple gin and tonics or bottles of wine and get another job. A job would be even easier for Megan; all she has to do is get out of the chair. Anna could find social groups and volunteer activities like other stay-at-home moms. Instead they just whine. The men aren’t much better. They all behave badly, and stereotypically so: abusing the women in different ways.

So what makes this novel so popular? I am somewhat mystified. The theme of work versus marriage and children, which could make it resonate for young women, seems falsely set up to me. Everyone behaves badly at home. We only see Rachel at work, and then only an embarrassing memory. One person in my group suggested that Rachel displayed elements of Bridget Jones and so attracted that audience.

I kept feeling that I was immersed in the 1950s—women stuck at home with or wanting babies while under their husband’s thumb—yet I understand that I’m old enough to have been through several increasingly complex waves of dealing with these issues and that each young generation of women has to address them all over again. I also understand that feminism in the UK is on a different timeline from the US. Still, I didn’t think the story treated these issues with subtlety or awareness of all the social history packed into them.

One reason for its popularity could be that it combines genres. It’s been called a literary thriller, a literary mystery, and a psychological thriller. Also, for those looking for a classic hook, it’s a Hitchcock mashup, combining elements of Rear Window, Stranger on a Train, and a third I won’t mention so as not to spoil the story for anyone who hasn’t read it.

Yet, mystery fans will find it very thin, with the red herrings barely mentioned before being casually ruled out and the ending well-telegraphed. The two detectives are barely mentioned and have almost no role in the book. Fans of literary fiction will also find it thin. Rachel is the only one whose inner life is developed, though her character is given plenty of layers and her inner monologue very well-written. More development of the other characters, better tying up of loose ends, and a few subplots would have made for a richer story.

I think it is too shallow to qualify as literary fiction. Outside of the three women the characters are not developed and, while there are plenty of layers to Rachel’s story that are reflected in Anna and Megan’s, there are no subplots involving the other characters.

I guess it’s the thriller aspect. Hawkins does a good job of adding microtension to each page. This keeps the reader engaged and the suspense ramped up, even when you know what’s going to happen. I liked the cover, too. With a blurred background fronted by large juddering text, it grabs your attention and conveys the essense of the story.

Is there a wildly popular bestseller that either thrilled or disappointed you? Why?

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, by Atul Gawande

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When my father was taken ill that last time, he did everything he could to keep from going to the hospital. He tried to hide what was happening, even though as a doctor he knew exactly what it was and what it meant. When discovered, he argued with my mother, trying to keep her from calling for an ambulance, and he fought the EMTs when they arrived. He yelled as he was being carried into the ER of the hospital where he had been chief of staff that he wanted to be left alone to die.

He knew what was going to happen. He was kept alive for three agonising months, undergoing one treatment program after another over his continued protests. His advance medical directive was no protection as his doctors persuaded my mother to override it.

So I thought I knew what I would encounter in this book by Gawande, a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. I knew that a huge percentage of medical costs come in the last few months of a person’s life, the problem being that we aren’t always sure that it actually is the end and not just another stage where recovery may be possible. I had also seen a friend’s family want to deny her treatment because they were concerned about the cost of assisted living and later a nursing home.

And, indeed, Gawande speaks directly to the issues around my father’s last illness.

. . . in a war that you cannot win, you don’t want a general who fights to the point of total annihilation. You don’t want Custer. You want Robert E. Lee, someone who knows how to fight for territory that can be won and how to surrender it when it can’t, someone who understands that the damage is greatest if all you do is battle to the bitter end.

The book is a surprise, though. Gawande examines these issues through stories of his patients and his own family, encouraging us to look at that phase of life that we mostly try to pretend will never happen, that inevitable decline into death. Most interesting to me, he takes us through the history of solutions for how to make the end of life meaningful, comfortable and affordable, from the first retirement communities to exciting new ideas.

New to me was the story of Keren Brown Wilson, one of the originators of the idea of assisted living.

Wilson believed she could create a place where people like Lou Sanders could live with freedom and autonomy no matter how physically limited they became.

The key word in her mind was home. Home is the one place where your own priorities hold sway. At home, you decide how you spend your time, how you share your space, and how you manage your possessions. Away from home, you don’t. This loss of freedom was what people like Lou Sanders and Wilson’s mother, Jessie, dreaded.

Some later adopters of her concepts have not stayed true to her vision, instead returning to the idea that safety is the only thing that matters. Gawande astutely points out that it is usually the children of the elderly making decisions about care, and they are more concerned with the safety of their loved ones than with their possibly risky independence.

I was overjoyed to learn about Bill Thomas’s work as medical director at a nursing home in upstate New York. Throwing out the safe option of keeping the elderly drugged and confined to wheelchairs, he filled their room with parakeets and plants. He added a day care center, so the residents could interact with children, to their mutual benefit. To the surprise of everyone but Thomas, these changes brought immediate improvements in patient outcomes.

The stories of patients and providers, along with Gawande’s stories of his own family’s confrontations with these issues makes this an enormously readable book. The stories bring the science to life.

All we ask is to be allowed to remain the writers of our own story. That story is ever changing. Over the course of our lives, we may encounter unimaginable difficulties. Our concerns and desires may shift. But whatever happens, we want to retain the freedom to shape our lives in ways consistent with our character and loyalties.

I would have liked to see Gawande address the issues related to the people working in these institutions. Yes, the structure of the institution and the principles behind that structure are the first step, but you must have people on the ground to carry them through on a day-to-day basis. As our population ages, care homes of every type will have an even harder time than they do now finding and adequately paying workers. We need to be thinking of how to expand our workforce of compassionate and well-educated people willing to take on an often unpleasant job.

Still, I am thrilled with this book. I hope it opens a much-needed conversation. My father would have loved this book and talked about it with everyone he met.

Playlist 2015

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Songs, whether vocal or instrumental, are stories too. And sometimes poetry. I listen to a lot of classical music and–when I want calm and comfort–to Keith Jarrett’s The Melody at Night, with You. The playlist below filled the rest of my musical hours; they are the songs I kept coming back to this year. Many thanks to my friends for their music.

Desperado, Johnny Cash
Marching Through Georgia Lament, Jacqueline Schwab
Johnny Has Gone For A Soldier, Jacqueline Schwab
And Am I Born To Die, Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn
New South Africa, Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn
Bitter Boy, Kate Rusby
Times A-Getting Hard, Happy Traum
Shebeg An Sheemor, Happy Traum
Gypsy Davey, Happy Traum
Sail Away Ladies/A Roof for the Rain/Snake River Reel, Ken Kolodner & Brad Kolodner
Black Jack David, Sweet Felons All
Raggle Taggle Gypsies, Sweet Felons All
Cornish Lads, Sweet Felons All
Adieu Adieu, Sweet Felons All
The Star Of The County Down, Walt Michael & Company
Ruins by the Shore, The Paul McKenna Band
Flying Through Flanders, The Paul McKenna Band
Slängpolskor, Lydia & Andrea
Schottis till Tom, Lydia & Andrea
Sweet Thames Flow Softly, Ian Robb

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I also have to add that I’ve been listening to Ryland Angel’s mostly a capella Christmas CD The New Voice of Christmas. His voice is quite lovely–I should say all his voices, since he sings multiple parts. What a range! I especially like an old favorite: In the Bleak Midwinter, and a hymn new to me: Be Thou My Vision.

What music have you been listening to?

On the Threshold of Winter, by Michael Hersch

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Not a book this week, or rather a production that started as a book. In 1996, Romanian poet Marin Sorescu died of liver cancer. Earlier that year he had been nominated for a Nobel Prize in Literature, and he did not stop writing after his diagnosis. In the last five weeks of his life, he wrote a searing collection of poems, later published as Puntea (The Bridge), much of it dictated to his wife, Virginia.

Taking these poems as his libretto, composer Michael Hersch created On the Threshold of Winter. It is a monodrama, that is, an opera for one voice. I heard it performed by soprano Ah Young Hong and the NUNC ensemble conducted by Tito Muñoz.

I not only heard it, I drowned in it. This stunning performance seized me from the start and immersed me in its tides of emotion. I was swept up in these last cries of grief and despair and anger and longing. Pulled this way and that, repeatedly ratcheted up and released, until reduced to the final letting go, the quiet liberation.

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Hersch’s works have been performed around the world by acclaimed conductors with major orchestras and chamber ensembles. He also teaches composition at the Peabody Institute, where Ah Young Hong also teaches voice. Hong’s performance was astonishing. I cannot begin to calculate the physical and emotional strain of singing and enacting such a strenuous role for two hours. She received a well-deserved standing ovation, sustained for some time through repeated curtain calls. The audience simply would not let her go.

Full disclosure: I am acquainted with Ms. Hong. But I defy anyone to experience such a performance without being overwhelmed with awe and admiration at her achievement.

But let’s get down to business. I had not previously encountered these poems, but reading over the libretto before the performance I was horrified on Sorescu’s behalf to read that Hersch had broken them apart and rearranged them. After some thought, though, I realised that such intervention was needed.

A monodrama—or any other theatrical production—calls for a drastically different structure from that of a poetry collection. Hersch repositioned the fragments of poems to create a sustained narrative, with rising and falling action, with dramatic scenes, with a resounding climax. And we still get the power and beauty of the lines (from the translation by Adam J. Sorkin and Lidia Vianu), such as these:

I balance on something frail . . .

Blasted apart by the spasms
Of a fierce whirlwind
A bridge between nothing and nothing
I have not asked to cross.

I’m not a musician, so I cannot comment on the music, though it certainly supported and enclosed the singer and the song, as one dancer supports another through intricate lifts and catches her when she leaps.

I do want to credit the stage director: James Matthew Daniel. The imaginative set, while spare, gave the solo performer much room for action. Large erections of scaffolding were hung with fabric and plastic. Ms. Hong at times climbed them or arduously pushed them into new positions. Statues, a bed, flowers, and a few other bits and pieces each served its purpose.

Ms. Hong’s costumes enhanced the role. Starting with an enveloping hooded bathrobe, each change revealed a bit more, even as the character’s last self was stripped as she approached the end.

When we write, we are limited to the page, hoping to evoke in readers the kind of sounds and visions delivered directly by a stage production. But there is much to learn here about pacing and setting and blocking and how to use such a limited palette to stun your audience.

What stage production have you seen recently that knocked you sideways?

Maps for Lost Lovers, by Nadeem Aslam

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After weeks of Penelope Fitzgerald’s brisk prose, starting Aslam’s novel, with its rich, luxuriant writing, felt like lowering myself into a hot perfumed bath after a long but rewarding day. Poetic doesn’t begin to describe the fragrant mass of images and sense-impressions that fill every sentence. His personification of the natural world adds to the atmosphere of mystery, of legends handed down through the generations.

Here is the first paragraph:

Shamas stands in the open door and watches the earth, the magnet that it is, pulling snowflakes out of the sky towards itself. With their deliberate, almost-impaired pace, they fall like feathers sinking in water. The snowstorm has rinsed the air of the incense that drifts into the houses from the nearby lake with the xylophone jetty, but it is there even when absent, drawing attention to its own disappearance.

The couple who have disappeared are Shamas’s brother Jugnu and Jugnu’s girlfriend Chanda, who have been living together in the face of the angry opposition of their families and community of Pakistani immigrants. The immigrants from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka who populate this English town have renamed the town and the streets in it with names more familiar to them.

It is this clash of the traditions the immigrants have brought with the Western culture of their new homes which powers the novel. Coexisting with lush descriptions of spices and silks and forests are brutal actions dictated by Islamic holy men and almost, but not quite, equally brutal attacks by furious xenophobic white people.

Shamas is our guide through these conflicting events. Educated and worldly, he is the Director of the Community Relations Council and the person everyone turns to when they need help navigating the world outside the community. With a foot in both worlds, Shamas tries to help his people while despairing at the cruel punishments they inflict on each other for some perceived sin, such as parents asking a holy man to exorcise their daughter—obviously possessed with djinns because she has fallen in love with a Hindu boy—listening as the man tortures and beats their daughter to death.

The clash of cultures afflicts Shamas’s own family, where his devout wife’s adherence to Muslim practices goes so far as to refuse to breastfeed a newborn during Ramadan’s daylight hours. She has driven away their three now-grown children, each choosing to integrate themselves into the wider world.

Yet Aslam presents these characters with compassion, gently asking the reader to recognise the reasons they act as they do. And he wraps the story, with its many pairs of lost lovers, in the beauty of the world in all its flavors and in the intoxication and deep comfort of love.

What novel have you read that opened your eyes to another culture?

Innocence, by Penelope Fitzgerald

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I have to admit that I struggled with this book. I loved the beginning, a retelling of a 16th century legend explaining the origin of the stone statues of midgets that stand atop a section of wall surrounding the Ridolfi villa. It is pure Fitzgerald: funny and heart-breaking and bizarre. Plus it introduces a characteristic of the Ridolfis that drives the rest of the story: “a tendency towards rash decisions . . . intended to ensure other people’s happiness”.

Then we move to 1955 when the current count, Giancarlo Ridolfi finds himself torn between his determination to not mind about anything much anymore and his fierce love for his daughter Chiara. At 65, Giancarlo has survived two world wars and now lives in a portion of his decrepit palazzo in Florence with his eccentric sister, leaving the villa in the hands of a caretaker couple. Fresh out of a convent school in England, Chiara falls in love with the unsuitable Salvatore Rossi, a doctor from a village in Italy’s economically depressed south, and he with her, although they excel in misunderstandings, confusion, and awkward meetings.

There are many vivid characters. Giancarlo’s nephew Cesare runs the family farm and can hardly bring himself to speak at all. Chiara’s schoolfriend Barney is a rosy giantess who falls in love over and over but is always certain that she knows what is best for everyone. There is even a scene where a young Salvatore is taken by his father to meet Antonio Gramsci, imprisoned by Mussolini, close to death and severely crippled.

There are also many funny scenes that gently mock Vatican politicians, on-the-make art historians, English transplants, and others. It is a story about innocence, how so many of us act with good intent but poor understanding. It is also a story about happiness, how rare it is, how fleeting, and unequally distributed. And also, how our efforts to bestow happiness on another tend to backfire.

With this novel, Fitzgerald’s writing becomes more impressionistic, giving the reader more responsibility for connecting the pieces. I didn’t have a problem with the shifts in time, or parts of the story being told backwards. After all, Ridolfi does refer to the word for memory, and our memory is anything but linear.

But I did struggle, especially after the legend at the beginning, with what seemed like excessive backstory combined with a lack of necessary information. For example, we are told that Giancarlo’s brother inherited the farm and that he has a wife and son. Some pages later we are introduced to Cesare whose father was killed in the war. It is only several pages later that it becomes clear that Cesare is that nephew. The long digressions, the confusion and misunderstandings certainly do mirror the story, but they risk alienating the reader.

I’m glad I didn’t give up. I can’t vouch for the accuracy of this view of some segments of Italian society in the mid 1950s, but I recognise much of what I found during my own travels there some decades later. The 1950s are an interesting period in Italy’s history, with World War II only recently ended, the remnants of Italy’s empire lost, and an economy still some years away from the “Economic Miracle”. These characters, with their varying approaches for facing an uncertain future, will stay with me for some time.

Have you been to Florence? What is your most vivid memory of that visit?

The Last Will of Moira Leahy, by Therese Walsh

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Twenty-five-year-old Maeve Leahy, professor of languages at Betheny University in New York State, has set up a straight and narrow path for herself. She devotes herself to her job, has two good friends, and never goes home to Castile, Maine. Her roommate Kit is a first-year resident and her best friend since childhood. Her other friend, met in college, is Noel, a painter whose father owns an antique store in town.

The person who is missing is Moira, the identical twin sister Maeve lost nine years earlier.

The chapters in this intriguing story alternate between Maeve’s adventures in the present day and the twin sisters’ childhood, told from Moira’s point of view. The pattern of alternating chapters and the clear statement of year and place for Moira’s chapters ensure that there is no confusion.

Taking refuge from the November wind and the memories it carries, Maeve goes into an auction house where she falls in love with and buys a keris, a Javanese weapon said to have mysterious powers. It reminds her of the keris her grandfather once owned, the one Maeve lost in the bay as a child, pretending to be Alvida the Pirate Queen. Her new purchase brings on mysterious letters and a package, leading her eventually to Rome to unravel the secrets of the keris and the people connected to it.

I generally don’t like to read adult novels with elements of the supernatural. It’s odd because I like the supernatural in Young Adult novels, often rereading some of my favorites such as Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series and, one of my top five favorite books, Jane Langton’s A Diamond in the Window. I even read a good bit of fantasy in my twenties and early thirties, when I still sort of believed that I might be given a magic cloak or sword that would make everything right. Then, during a difficult time, I decided that the only way to move forward was to adopt poet Stevie Smith’s dictum to just “go on, without enchantment.”

My slight acquaintance with the author and the praise I’d heard for the novel led me to set my scruples aside. I’m glad I did. For one thing, the elements of the supernatural in this book can be explained rationally, so it becomes the reader’s choice what to believe, as in The Virgin of Small Plains. Curiously, I read that book with two book clubs, one of whom all accepted the supernatural causes and the other who all believed in only the rational explanations.

Secondly, Walsh’s story revolves around one of my continuing interests: the influence of the past on the present. And finally—making me laugh at myself—Maeve’s inner struggle is about breaking free of the restrictions she has placed on herself, even as she confronts the dangers that attend the keris.

I enjoyed the story, even though I sometimes felt like shaking Maeve and Moira for their missteps and bad decisions. These grow naturally out of the young women’s characters, though, so I forgave them. A few unexpected twists surprised and delighted me, and the ending satisfied me in a way that few novels do these days. I look forward to reading Walsh’s latest book, The Moon Sisters.

When you read an adult novel that contains some elements that might be supernatural, do you believe the rational explanation or the supernatural one?